Is There A Universal Cable Converter Solution?

If you think the presidential primaries, Cam Newton v. the media, and Superman v. Batman battles are brutal, just wait. Two of the most hated entities in our society—the Federal government and local cable TV providers—are about to butt proverbial heads over one of the most important devices in consumer homes: the cable box.

This week, the FCC decided to proceed with a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to unlock the set-top box and make it easier for consumers to buy, instead of rent, cable boxes.

FCC chief Tom Wheeler’s NPRM action is a reaction to President Obama’s signing of the STELAR Act of 2014 early last December. STELAR was a compromise bill that achieved the laudable goal of allowing cable and satellite providers to pull in distant stations, but also killed Section 629 of the Telecom Act of 1996. Up until the STELAR signing, Section 629 required cable companies to supply CableCARDS to consumers who wanted to buy a third-party converter box, such as a TiVo. Not any more.

Last week, my esteemed colleague Greg Scoblete laid out some of the political and business model objections to Wheeler’s cable converter unlocking scheme. But what proponents of maintaining the status quo— and even some proponents of change—more convincingly argue are the considerable technical roadblocks this plan will face.

“[Wheeler’s NPRM] seems to be a valiant attempt at a do-over on Section 629,” observes Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the CTA. “There are some things to like, for example identifying the information that MVPDs must pass to competitive devices; and some things not to like, such as not requiring any particular security system.

“Not requiring a security system is a showstopper,” Shapiro concludes, “because you cannot build a nationwide TV (or STB) that works on all cable systems.”

Or can’t you?

A Universal Cloud Solution?

Less than two weeks after STELAR was signed by the President, the Consumer Video Choice Coalition (CVCC), an off-shoot of the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) whose members include Google, Vizio and TiVo, demonstrated to the FCC a cloud-based system that it claims will enable the FCC’s long-standing cloud-based AllVid proposal, which ties in its National Broadband Plan and net neutrality efforts.

The CVCC demonstration showed how off-the-shelf equipment and open standards can be used to get pay TV linear, as well as other content, to consumers on a third-party device. No doubt, with the use of IP, servers and software, such a case can be made in a demonstration. The trick, however, will be in the nationwide implementation across hundreds of disparate systems with varying technical specifications, conditional-access systems and content-distribution agreements.

Not surprisingly, the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), which a month later filed a lengthy technical and logistical rebuttal to the CCVC solution with the FCC, took issue with the CVCC’s findings and suggested that a new government-mandated cable box would be necessary to accomplish the AllVid goals.

The point is, there does seem to be a technical solution. Whether it’s a viable or acceptable solution is another story.

What’s Changed?

Wheeler and his FCC colleagues may be motivated by more than just an altruistic Teddy Roosevelt-memorial anti-monopoly move. In the 20 years since the Telecom Act of 1996 was passed, the Internet has changed the entire nature of “telecom” and “television”—we’re no longer talking about your father’s cable box. Content from non-cable, OTT outlets such as Netflix and Amazon have proven that access to streaming content has become critical to consumers, capabilities the CCVC emphasized in its FCC demo and the FCC in AllVid.

TiVo has proven the single-box concept, with its ability to universally search and access broadcast, pay cable and OTT content with equal alacrity. For instance, when a consumer programs TiVo to automatically record every episode of a particular show, TiVo asks if either or both broadcast and streaming options should be stored.

If the main roadblock to a universal converter solution is merely technical, it’s hard to believe the technical solutions can’t be applied. But obviously, there are more than just technical considerations facing the FCC.

With the FCC’s decision to proceed, let head-butting battle begin.